We would be remiss if we didn’t mention that the Orioles are in Boston to take on the Red Sox for the first time since effectively ending their playoff hopes on the final day of the 2011 season. After all, we did do a 5-part retrospective on the game here at Orioles Observer. Feels like we should at least mention the pending 3-game series. I still firmly believe that September 28, 2011, was a great game, an excellent moment, and an exciting memory for O’s players and fans alike. However, as Bob Andino and other O’s players expressed in today’s Baltimore Sun, it is now officially in the past. More to the point, the Orioles are seven games over .500 and in 2nd place in the AL East. Their Boston counterparts are two games below .500 and in last place in the division. It seems pointless, if not a bit ridiculous, to dwell on knocking the Red Sox out of the playoffs last year when the O’s should now be concerned about beating a struggling team in order to maintain their spot atop the AL East standings. On paper, this is clearly a different Red Sox team from the teams that have consistently competed in the AL East for the better part of the last decade. On paper, this Orioles team doesn’t look dramatically different from the teams that have compiled 14 straight losing records. Through 25 games, the Red Sox are playing like the team they appear to be “on paper” while the Orioles look like a very good, much improved team through the same amount of games. That begs the question on which Orioles team is the real one – the one that on paper was supposed to win less than 70 games or the one that has gotten out to a 16-9 start? That remains to be seen. Regardless, the point is that there are several indications that the 2012 Red Sox are not the same dominant Red Sox teams of the past decade. Even if the Orioles aren’t a substantially improved team from a year ago, that is still reason enough to be optimistic heading into the first Baltimore-Boston series of the season.
Someone wrote the other day on Orioles Hangout that the Red Sox current starting outfield is Marlon Byrd, Mike Sweeney, and Cody Ross. I knew that was true. I knew that Carl Crawford and Jacoby Elsbury were on the disabled list, which left those three patrolling the Boston outfield. Still, actually seeing those three names in listed in print as the Red Sox STARTING outfield shocked me. Not that the outfield has been an outright strength for recent Red Sox teams, but Byrd-Sweeney-Ross is certainly far less impressive than Ramirez-Crisp-Drew, Bay-Elsbury-Drew, Crawford-Elsburg-Drew, or even Ramirez-Damon-Kapler. You look at the rest of the lineup as it stands right now and there isn’t a ton to be scared of. Pedroia and Ortiz are still tough outs and Adrian Gonzalez is one of the better hitters in all of baseball. Beyond that is a lot of mediocrity. The Red Sox, at least now with their current injuries, no longer have the sort of lineup that strikes fear in the opposing pitcher from batter #1 through #9.
The pitching is much the same way. Jon Lester has owned the O’s throughout his career. Behind him, there is Josh Beckett who is showing definite signs of age-induced regression, Clay Buchholz who is struggling after being injured most of 2011, converted reliever Daniel Bard, and Felix Durbont. The bullpen has been extremely messy and Alfredo Aceves current sports a 10.00+ ERA as the team’s closer.
Make no mistake about it, the Red Sox are still a good team. With all their players healthy, they are a very good team. Fenway Park, with its frustrating and often times annoying abnormalities, can affect the outcome of a game more than any other stadium in baseball can. Still, I don’t dread playing the Red Sox as much as I did a couple of years ago. Maybe some of that is the residual high from the way the Orioles ended last season against Boston, but I don’t think so. The Red Sox team that will take the field tonight at Fenway is clearly, both on paper and in reality, a less talented team than all other Red Sox teams in recent memory.
There is a lot of talk about how the Orioles need to show they can beat the Yankees and Red Sox if they ever want to become relevant again. That is not exactly true. Despite playing those two teams 18 times each this season, the Orioles could hypothetically go 18-18 in those games, go 72-54 (which is a reasonable .572 winning percentage), and still win 90 games. The O’s don’t have to literally beat those two teams to become relevant again, but they have been so dominate over the O’s for so long, that beating the Yankees and Red Sox on a consistent basis would be a strong sign that the Orioles have turned a corner. Beating the Red Sox on a regular basis would be representative of improvement, if not actually a prerequisite for improvement.
Still, at least to us fans, these games mean more. Buck Showalter said that there is nothing special about beating the Yankees in New York. That’s the attitude the players and coaches should have. For the fans, however, those wins do mean more. Every series win against teams that have routinely defeated the O’s – the Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays to name a few – is another piece of evidence that maybe this team is turning a corner. A series win over the Red Sox, regardless of their current struggles, would be another positive sign in that direction. More importantly, it would mean two or three more games in the win column as the O’s continue on this early season test of consecutive games against tough opponents.